Mental Health Month: Better Late than Never

By Rev. Don Rollins

Right there, right there on the list of the least logical phenomena of all time—right between “Dyspeptic Alien Vomits Forth Elvis’ Love Child” and “Dan Quayle, Vice President of the United States”—is the designation of May as Mental Health Month. May? In the Northern Hemisphere? These translucent-skinned, lutefisk-loving, long john-clad, snow-shoveling, Garrison Keillor-worshipping Minnesotans clawed their way through another winter from Hell, and now they’re supposed to pay attention to their depressed existential situation? To borrow from M*A*S*H’s straight-shooting Col. Sherman T. Potter, Beaver Biscuits! They’ve already made it to the grass, thank you very much. With spring finally in the air, they probably need Mental Health Month like Dick Cheney needs male menopause.

Even after a rough winter, it’s the rare native Minnesotan who publicly whines about the prolonged and bitter cold. (That’s the province of those of us born to saner climes.) True Gopher-Staters wear another winter survived as a kind of Norwegian merit badge—a Silver Star for the masochistic, weather-challenged crowd. Mental Health Month, Schmental Health Month!

Even if you’re a fan of the idea, Mental Health Month in spring is laughable when you live on the frozen winter prairie. But this is where we get serious, because, around here, mental health itself is not so laughable. Prairie life has its share of clinical mental illness and situational funk. It shows in the court records: domestic violence, DUIs, assaults, child abuse. It shows in the school records: truancy, poor grades, behavior issues, dropouts. It shows in the medical records: depression, chronic illness, cirrhosis, somatization.

Too many of the Upper Midwest’s old folks who live with mental illness sit alone, channel surfing in their sagging farmhouses. Too many young folks who live with mental illness get high whenever, wherever and however they can. And too many of both age groups choose suicide as the long-term solution. An especially long, sunlight-deprived winter may be legendary but it’s not always laughable, not when your brain chemistry already has you pinned to the wall.

Prairie pastors know all this. Liberal, conservative or somewhere in-between, come November we watch for who’s losing weight or who’s isolating or who’s uncharacteristically irritable. We get downright nosy about how our folks are doing. Have the bowling leagues started up yet? Is your daughter coming for Christmas? How’s school? Feeling okay? We know that everybody’s trying to make do.

Now, in the little liberal parish I serve, a goodly number of the faithful—theists, humanists, Christians and we-don’t-believe-in-labels-thank-you-very-much types—make do by trying to change the world. All four seasons. Big energy. Edgy engagement. They’re the barnyard activists of Fly Over Land, the ones who serve, raise hell and send what they can to Hillary, Barak and anybody else who’ll buck this nation’s outrageous binge of Red-State thinking. (Hell, they’d campaign for a three-legged skunk if they thought it had a shot at ousting the Republicans!)

But not so much this nasty winter. Folks are tired. There’s not been much talk of saving much of anything. Of course they know that the planet’s still in trouble. Sure, everybody knows the importance of this election. No, they haven’t forgotten or forsaken the cause of peace with justice. But they’re tired. Spiritually and politically tired.

Friend, when these would-be world-savers stop trying to save the world, something’s up. Likely as not, that something has to do with what we may rightly call their mental health. Most winters, they’re locked onto MSNBC, CNN, NPR and PBS like green on a frog, so when they stop giving a damn about the news it means something. Right now, it means spiritual and political fatigue.

So here’s a timely mental health report from the Heartland: These latter-day descendents of the original prairie populists are weary. For real. But they have persevered. Again. They’ve weathered (literally) a true season of despair. Until Memorial Day, you snowbirds and sunshiners will just have to pick up the slack a while longer, because, after some reflection, I’m think I’m going to promote Mental Health Month with a holy passion. They can probably make May work … February would have been better.

Rev. Don Rollins is pastor of the Nora Unitarian Universalist Church in Hanska, Minn.

From The Progressive Populist, May 15, 2008

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